NEW YORK – The atmosphere in Manhattan a few days before the election feels like Tel Aviv the morning after the last Knesset election – shock, disbelief and classic leftist impotence. “How did it come to this?” “How did we not see it coming?” “I’m going to post a petition on Facebook.”
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Donald Trump hasn’t won anything yet, and the odds still favor Hillary Clinton, but the narrowing race and Trump’s newfound momentum caught the New York bubble off guard. It’s not even a week since Clinton started considering cabinet members and ordering new carpet for the Oval Office.
It’s always presumptuous to try to capture the soul and guts of an election campaign from the perspective of a casual tourist – all the more so for a tourist in the fashionable environs of Soho. It’s not like you have Pennsylvania steelworkers or Ohio pig farmers here – those clichéd groups that are supposed to determine elections and that political reporters are so fond of quoting. Most people around here design websites or boots.
The election hasn’t taken over the public space in the way Israel is covered with posters, stickers and leaflets, but every conversation with locals about any subject quickly turns to what will happen on November 8. And many of them, when talking with tourists, sound massively apologetic, as if saying “it’s not us (New Yorkers), it’s them (Americans).”
Spring Lounge is an American bubble within the Manhattan bubble – a macho bar where the décor includes framed photos of baseball players, the American flag and a stuffed shark. The bar, which has been at this location in Nolita since the 1930s, is flanked on one side by a boutique that sells $27 designer Scandinavian socks and on the other by a café that offers free Wi-Fi but nothing containing gluten.
At 11 A.M., the clientele includes a pair of lawyers taking a break over glasses of gin, a financial adviser who popped in to top up his Starbucks with some Jameson, and a couple of guys who look like they were forgotten there the night before.
The talk in the bar isn’t about the election – everyone is all worked up over the Cubs’ World Series victory over the Indians. The bartender is a big grizzly bear of a man with a graying beard. “What do you get when you trust a Mexican to throw a ball?” he says, and all the regulars laugh.
They seem like a nice friendly bunch; the kind of folks who’ll be quite amiable until you say the wrong thing or cross some imaginary line and find yourself on the wrong side of a rifle. I ask them what they think of Trump.
“He’ll be like all the rest,” says one of the lawyers. “He won’t change Washington. Washington will change him.”
“That’s right,” says the financial guy, “but at least he’s saying what he’s saying. He’s got balls. He doesn’t need them.” The lawyer nods. “He’s driving them crazy,” he says with a smile.
“Them” is the virtual enemy whom Trump is fighting. Some might call it the political establishment, others will say it’s the media or the immigrants. It’s best not to name “them” because then everyone can fill in the blank for himself.
A silver-haired man in a long leather coat and tie, and with a hat festooned with crocodile teeth, calls on the others to join him in a toast. “To America’s future!” To which a chubby guy at the end of the bar rejoins: “America has no future.”
“Drink up, because seven days from now Madam Hillary will be president,” says the silver-haired guy. “Doesn’t matter who’s elected,” says the other guy. “We’re screwed either way.”
“I don’t care about the presidential election,” says the bartender. “I just want to get Chuck Schumer out of the Senate. But there’s no chance, the whole system is working for him, even the Republicans. They put up a featherweight against him.”
Schumer, a senator from New York, is running for reelection. “He’s corrupt, he doesn’t represent New Yorkers at all. I know – my cousin worked in his office but he threw her out because she’s not a Jew. Only Jews work for him.”
Now I knew who the bartender’s “them” was. “Hey, where are you from?” he asks me cheerfully. “Switzerland,” I reply.
People are alientated
Lily Rivlin takes seriously the anti-Semitism that’s been rising on the periphery of the Trump movement. Rivlin, a documentary filmmaker and feminist activist (and cousin of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin), was born in prestate Israel in 1936 and has lived in America for most of her life.
“I’m stunned by Jews who support him,” she says. “The biggest is Sheldon Adelson. I’ve seen Jews supporting him, but not people I know personally. The closest I’ve come is my cousin’s son – he’s not a Rivlin! He just has money, and as soon as you have money you identify with the party of money, which is the Republicans. This is nothing new, it’s an old pattern.”
I ask her if American Jews are afraid of a new outburst of anti-Semitism.
“Those who know history are fearful of anti-Semitism,” she says. “It’s a formula – when there’s a recession, when the proletariat wants part of the pie and the pie isn’t big enough, when the Jews are in prominent positions, the Jews come under attack and society’s ills are projected onto them. It hasn’t yet happened here in a big way, but the signs are there.”
Rivlin skips back and forth between Hebrew and English. Her apartment is crammed with books and artwork, including some by Israel’s Yair Garbuz. The view of the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty and One World Trade Center is surprising after you’ve come up the nondescript stairwell and found Rivlin’s door with the Hillary Clinton sticker on it.
“I send emails day and night, and on Saturday I’ll go door to door and talk to people and try to convince them. I’m a feminist, and if she’s elected it will be the jewel in the crown of years of fighting for equality,” Rivlin says.
“She’s the one who coined the phrase, ‘Women’s rights are human rights.’ My friends are scared now. None of us ever expected that Trump would be this close to Clinton. We’re in shock.”
So how does Rivlin explain it?
“The gap between rich and poor has gotten out of control and he represents this. Not that the Clintons haven’t contributed to it, but he represents it most starkly,” she says.
“His supporters are a terrifying coalition. The ignorant – it’s sad to say but this isn’t a highly educated country, and people are alienated. They feel that the idea of America was stolen from them by the immigrants.”
Even cowboys spot the Jews
On Fifth Avenue stands the Ground Zero of Trumpism – Trump Tower – the 58-story golden mausoleum that the real estate and casino magnate built for himself. In recent months crowds have gathered there daily; there’s a regular police presence.
Outside the broad doors stands the Naked Cowboy – a guy in his underwear singing to the tune of his white guitar. The Naked Cowboy is familiar to anyone who’s ever passed through Times Square. He came from Cincinnati years ago and proved that all you need is a dream, a tight Speedo and a pair of taut nipples to make it in the Big Apple.
The Naked Cowboy recently shifted his gig from Times Square to the Trump Tower sidewalk to show his support for the Republican candidate. He strums the two chords he knows and sings about cutting taxes and fighting the Islamic State; there’s also one about how Hillary Clinton is a bitch. He pauses every so often to snap pictures with fan and expound on his political philosophy.
The Cowboy, who himself ran for president in 2012 on the Tea Party ticket, has declared that he’ll stay outside the building until November 9, when Trump becomes president-elect and America starts revving up to be great again. Two Hillary supporters hold signs calling on Trump to pay taxes.
The Cowboy’s move from Times Square to Trump Tower symbolizes the presidential race as a whole. It’s also a reminder that Trump, who’s detested by the New York elite, is a native New Yorker who grew up in Queens, while Clinton only became a New Yorker when she was looking for a cushy place to run for the Senate. Trump, the nouveau riche whose hair is even painted gold, represents the soul (or soullessness) of glittery capitalist ‘80s New York.
One passerby, an older man wearing a kippa, says “Trump doesn’t love America, he only loves himself,” and keeps on walking. The Cowboy turns to one of the Hillary supporters and says, “He’s a Jew, right? I saw that salad plate on his head.”
The protester corrects him: “It’s called a kippa. Just like Trump, you can’t hide your anti-Semitism.” Now the Cowboy looks truly offended. “I’m not anti-Semitic,” he says. “My manager is Jewish.”